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HUV 49

Photographic views of Widener Library, 1913-1988: an inventory

Harvard University Archives

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Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: HUV 49
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Title: Photographic views of Widener Library, 1913-1988
Date(s): 1913-1988
Quantity: 1 cubic feet (277 photographs)
Abstract: Built in 1915, the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library is the central library of Harvard University. It was built with a gift from Eleanor Elkins Widener as a memorial to her son, Harry Elkins Widener, a 1907 graduate of Harvard, who died with the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. The library, built with a capacity for three million volumes, was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele, Trumbauer's chief designer and the first African American to graduate from the Graduate School of Fine Arts at University of Pennsylvania. The Photographic views of Widener Library provide a visual record of the central library of Harvard University, its grounds, and its surroundings from 1913 to 1988. The 277 images include reproductions of architectural drawings and photographs. Formats include gelatin silver prints, albumen prints, collodion prints, collotype prints, and letterpress halftone prints.

Acquisition information:

These images were acquired by the Harvard University Archives from the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth century.

Processing Information:

This finding aid was created by Amanda Sherman in April 2016.
Description of the Photographic views of Widener Library, 1913-1988, was supported by the Harvard Library's Hidden Collection initiative.

Researcher Access:

Open for research.

Online access:

All of the images have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Preferred Citation:

Photographic views of Widener Library, 1913-1988. HUV 49, Harvard University Archives.

Related Materials

Collections in the Harvard University Archives

Historical Note

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library is the central library of Harvard University. It was built with a gift from Eleanor Elkins Widener as a memorial to her son, Harry Elkins Widener, a 1907 graduate of Harvard, who died with the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912. The library, built with a capacity for three million volumes, was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele, Trumbauer's chief designer and the first African American to graduate from the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. Construction on the library began in 1913, and it was opened for use in 1915. Widener Library was built on the site of Gore Hall, the building that had previously served as Harvard's library.
Harry Elkins Widener graduated from Harvard University in 1907 and was a passionate book collector. He was a passenger on the Titanic, and both he and his father, George D. Widener, passed away when the ship sank, while his mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, survived. In his will, he bequeathed his book collection of 3,300 volumes to his mother with instructions to donate it to Harvard once the University had built a more suitable library. For years, the University had been struggling with insufficient library space in Gore Hall to house a book collection that had grown from 400 in 1764 to 645,000 in 1913. For this reason, Mrs. Widener donated funds to Harvard to build a library, named the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library in memory of her son, for the purpose of housing her son's collection as well as the University's own collection. Widener's books are kept in the Harry Elkins Widener Collection room in the center of the library.
Because Harvard had been experiencing deficient space for its book collection for several years, the administrators already had a fundamental design created in 1911. With a design in hand, work was started immediately after Harvard received the gift from Mrs. Widener. The books were removed from Gore Hall by the end of 1912, and Gore Hall was demolished by February 1913. Construction was completed in mid-1915, and the library was dedicated on Commencement Day, June 24, 1915. Mrs. Widener met her second husband, Harvard professor Alexander Hamilton Rice, at the dedication, and they married in October 1915. From then on, she was known as Eleanor Elkins Widener Rice.
The new library was designed in an Imperial and Classical style as a hollow rectangle with the Widener Collection of rare books and memorial hall in the center. The east, west, and south wings contain ten floors of book stacks, and the north wing houses administrative offices and reading rooms, including the Loker Reading Room (formerly the Main Reading Room). The top floor contains rooms for special collections, studies, offices, and seminars. The entrance hall features John Singer Sargent murals by the main staircase. Other special rooms included the Farnsworth Room, Woodberry Poetry Room, Theatre Collection, Treasure Room, and Lincoln Room. Widener Library is part of the Tercentenary Theatre, a large open space in Harvard Yard where commencement is held every year. The Tercentenary Theatre is created by a border of four buildings: Widener Library to the south, Sever Hall to the east, Memorial Church to the north, and University Hall to the west.
Widener Library's shelves were filled to capacity by the late 1930s, and Harvard built Houghton Library in 1941 to hold special collections and Lamont Library in 1949 to host undergraduate reading. Collections continued to grow quickly, and Widener Library was nearly full again by 1965. Pusey Library was then built to help alleviate the problem in 1976. Several of the special rooms in Widener Library were transferred to the new libraries. The Treasure Room was transferred to Houghton Library, and the Farnsworth Room and Woodberry Poetry Room were transferred to Lamont Library. The Harvard Theatre Collection and the Harvard University Archives were transferred to Pusey Library.
Because Mrs. Widener stipulated that Widener Library's exterior could not be altered as part of the gift agreement, the exterior remained unchanged from 1915 until Houghton Library was built in 1941. A second-story bridge was constructed to connect the two buildings together, meeting Widener Library at a pre-existing window as not to alter the building itself other than to attach the bridge. The bridge was removed in 2004 due to fire safety and security issues. Widener Library had major renovations completed in 2004, adding glass ceilings to the light wells, which were converted into reading rooms.

Biographical Note on Harry Elkins Widener

Harry Elkins Widener, Harvard College Class of 1907, was born to George Dalton Widener and Eleanor Elkins Widener on January 3, 1885 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was raised in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Widener attended Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and upon graduating in 1903, he attended Harvard College. He was a member of Hasty Pudding Theatricals and the Owl Club, and upon his death on the Titanic, he bequeathed his collection of approximately 3,300 volumes to Harvard through his mother, who donated funds to build the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.
Widener began collecting rare books in his sophomore year at Harvard after doing research in early books with colored plates to illustrate costumes for a Hasty Pudding theatrical production. He was born into a wealthy family who were serious collectors of paintings, tapestries, silver, and china, and he also was passionate about book collecting. His collection started with his favorite authors, including Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and George, Isaac, and Robert Cruikshank. Later, he began to include notable authors, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Bronte, William Shakespeare, and William Blake. Soon, he joined the Grolier Club and the Bibliophile Society and had connected with booksellers Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach and Luther Livingston. Most notably, his collection included a Shakespeare Folio and a Gutenberg Bible.
Widener was returning to the United States after a book-buying trip to England when he boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg with his father and mother. On the night the ship sank, April 14, 1912, the Wideners had thrown a party in honor of the Titanic's captain, Edward Smith. After the ship struck the iceberg, Widener helped his mother and her maid, Emily Geiger, into a lifeboat. He remained on the ship, saying to his friend William Ernest Carter, "I think I'll stick to the big ship, Billy, and take a chance." Widener, his father, and his father's valet, Edwin Keeping, drowned, while his mother and her maid both survived. The books that Widener purchased on his trip were also lost, including a second edition of Francis Bacon's Essays.
In his will, Widener bequeathed his book collection to his mother, with instructions to donate them to Harvard once a more suitable library had been constructed. Mrs. Widener donated the funds to build the library, and Widener's books are kept in the Harry Elkins Widener Collection room in the Widener Library.

References

Arrangement

The photographic views of Widener Library has a legacy arrangement reflecting over 100 years of interfiling individual photographs of the structure from many sources into one collection. The images are arranged into twenty-eight folders, with the photographs loosely arranged in chronological order in each folder. Folders 1 to 14 are in Box 1, and Folders 15 to 28 are in Box 2. Folders 1 to 15 and 28 contain photographs of the interior of Widener Library, and folders 16 to 27 contain photographs of the exterior of Widener Library.This collection is part of the Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Views, in which Archives staff compiled images, whether acquired individually or removed from larger collections, and arranged them in categories based on locations, buildings, or landscape features for ease of reference.

Scope and Content

The Photographic views of Widener Library provide a visual record of the central library of Harvard University, its grounds, and its surroundings from 1913 to 1988. The 277 images include reproductions of architectural drawings and photographs. Formats include gelatin silver prints, albumen prints, collodion prints, collotype prints, and letterpress halftone prints. Images in the collection have primarily been contributed by the Harvard Film Service, the Harvard University News Office, and the Harvard Alumni Bulletin. Many of the construction photographs were removed from a scrapbook of Archibald Cary Coolidge, the first director of the Harvard University Library.
Exterior photographs show Widener Library and the grounds from a variety of angles in the daytime and at night. The images show the Gore Hall plaque, Harvard shield and carvings of the printers' marks of William Caxton, Berchthold Rembolt, Fust & Schoeffer, and Aldus Manutius that are displayed on the outside walls, as well as close-ups of the columns and light wells. They also display students walking in Harvard Yard and sitting on the library steps, and one image shows the Glee Club performing on the steps for a large audience. Another image shows a tree that had fallen during the 1938 Great New England Hurricane. A series of photographs shows the 1913 construction of Widener Library, from digging the basement up to building the walls, columns, roof, and Main Reading Room. This series also shows the cornerstone laying ceremony, featuring Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell and Harvard University Library Director Archibald Cary Coolidge delivering speeches for spectators.
Interior photographs show the study and work spaces, as well as the many special rooms in Widener Library. Images display the Main Reading Room, periodicals room, study cubicles, and book stacks, many with students studying and reading. Work spaces shown include the card catalog, delivery room, order department, basement storage, main entrance security inspection desk, and circulation desk in the Main Reading Room. Some photographs show staff at work. Images of special rooms include the memorial hall, entrance hall, Harry Elkins Widener Collection with librarian George Winship Parker at his desk, Farnsworth Room, Treasure Room, Lincoln Room, Theatre Collection, and rotunda. Close-up photographs in the memorial room and entrance hall show memorial inscriptions to Harry Elkins Widener and Eleanor Elkins Rice. One image of the Treasure Room shows the Richard Henry Dana Centenary Exhibit displayed in 1915, and photographs of a third-floor corridor show a collection of portraits of members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Gerome Brush.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 June 16.

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